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'I get a buzz every day' – how to turn your foodie passion into a business

The Guardian logo The Guardian 25/04/2019 Elisabeth Mahoney

© Getty For a keen cook, there’s nothing quite like a lavish compliment about the food you have made. Dangerously, for the passionate foodie, the admirer may go on to say you should be doing it for a living. That seed sown, they will go back to their sensible job while you are left with lingering thoughts of winning MasterChef, successfully pitching your amazing food product on Dragon’s Den, being stocked in Waitrose, and your cookbook outselling A Pinch of Nom. A hobby has morphed into a dream.

This happened to me seven years ago. After a decade of writing about food, interviewing chefs and working as a restaurant critic, a few people suggested I start cooking for a living. I launched One Mile Bakery, a microbakery based in my house, delivering bread, soup and preserves by bike within a mile of my kitchen, and teaching baking classes there. I did my research – which included reading several times that nine out of 10 food businesses fail – and did lots of the right things: keeping my day job for the first few months; paying for business mentoring; offering subscriptions for deliveries so there was no waste; delivering at teatime so I didn’t have to bake all night; and working at home to minimise overheads.

Running a bakery in our house brought challenges from day one, however. “There is nowhere to sit in this madhouse,” my husband said. “There are 25kg sacks of flour on every single seat. The three on the sofa look as if they are watching telly.” Teaching more than 2,000 people to bake around our kitchen table over four years also had its moments. He popped in to grab a coffee when I was teaching how to make doughnuts. To a startled group of millennials, who emphatically didn’t get the reference, he said: “May all your doughnuts turn out like Fanny’s,” and left the kitchen.

© Getty Six months after launch, I went on holiday. I slept for most of the fortnight: by the pool, nodding off into exquisite dinners, but mostly 14-hour stretches in bed. The tourist sights in that part of Italy were left entirely unseen. Despite my research, I had made many classic business startup blunders: not delegating anything, never saying no, and working insane hours every single day. I was more tired than I had ever been, but wasn’t earning enough to give up the day job. Making a living from food is tough, and nobody tells you about the hours you have to put in. Cycling around my hilly delivery mile after a 16-hour baking shift on my feet the whole time was a whole new level of fatigue.

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“You can be extremely successful in another career arena, but it can take years to comprehend how the food business works,” says Tessa Stuart, a food brand consultant whose clients include Innocent, Rude Health, Pip & Nut and Graze. Common pitfalls for food startups include focusing on the product to the exclusion of spreadsheets.

“You need to be very good at cashflow,” Stuart says. “You can’t think, I’ll work out how to make it pay later on – you have to do your sums right at the beginning. Also, you wouldn’t believe how many people don’t factor in the cost of their own labour, the ‘making time’.” It’s also not a career for shrinking violets. “You need to be marketing 100% of the time. You’ve got to sell, and sell yourself, all the time: on podcasts, on Instagram, on Facebook, at events. This can break people, having to be always ‘on’.”

Caprese. Caprese salad. Italian salad. Mediterranean salad. Italian cuisine. Mediterranean cuisine. Tomato mozzarella basil leaves black olives and olive oil on wooden table. Recipe - Ingredients © Getty Caprese. Caprese salad. Italian salad. Mediterranean salad. Italian cuisine. Mediterranean cuisine. Tomato mozzarella basil leaves black olives and olive oil on wooden table. Recipe - Ingredients It can also very lonely, especially at the start. Jason Gibb, who left a television career in the US to launch Nudo olive oil 15 years ago, remembers the “lonely road” well. He didn’t know anyone in the industry and friends would glaze over when he tried to talk about his new venture. But by chance he was invited to a dinner for food and drink founders. “Suddenly I met kindred spirits,” he says. “I could crack jokes about product liability insurance, laugh over new product development mistakes and find out what the Selfridge’s food hall buyer’s name was.” This led him to launch Bread&Jam, which organises founders’ festivals, boot camps and socials for food startups.

Gibb is blunt about why most food businesses fail. “The biggest mistake is creating a product that not enough people want to buy. Seriously, I see this all the time. There are three ways to have a product that stands you apart from your competitors: be better, be cheaper or be different. If your product doesn’t nail one of these, you might as well go home.”

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Put this way, you wonder why anyone ever takes a food hobby and turns it into something so tough and unrelenting. But then you talk to people making it work. Katy Harris launched Katy’s Kitchen in Frome, Somerset, in January, selling vegetarian and vegan dishes online and at a stall in the town’s Saturday market. “I had 63 orders for ready meals, tons of orders through the Frome Food Hub, and a market stall to cook for, all in my first week,” she says. The market stall sold out on a bitterly cold day in January and continues to do so. Self-taught, Harris had worked in cafes, but this was her cooking her own meat-free food for the first time.

Fruit cake with icing sugar on top, served on plate © Getty Fruit cake with icing sugar on top, served on plate “It was the first time I was going alone with the food I love,” she recalls. “I started with nothing in the bank, selling ready meals to friends and getting their feedback. The pressure was huge, and physically I wasn’t prepared for how exhausting it would be. In other food jobs, I had a pot washer, someone to clear up, but doing the whole thing is completely different: the marketing and social media, the buying, the recipe development, the ordering, the paperwork, the emails, the making, the clearing up, the washing up and then the selling. People have no idea that the cooking side of it is only about 10%. But I feel as if I’m now doing what I’ve waited my whole life for. It’s not just a job – I’m expressing who I am through food and I’ve got a sense of achievement I’ve never had at work before.”

Street food businesses have been a hugely popular yet relatively low-risk way for food entrepreneurs to test out a new product, but standing out in a crowded sector remains challenging. Tom Stafford, founder of Doh’hut in Leeds, describes a typical weekend pop-up for his award-winning doughnut business: “Maybe five hours sleep – and when you are awake, there’s no rest. It’s constant prep, cook, serve, beer, clean, prep, cook, serve, rum, clean, prep, cook, serve, more rum, clean.”

What gets him through is “feeding someone the best doughnut they will ever eat.” His tips for would-be food startups are simple: “Do your market research, find your gap in the market, create and build your brand and be the absolute best at what you do.” Winning best dessert and overall champion at last year’s Street Food awards, and best dessert at the European Street Food awards has built confidence in his brand and, after just 18 months, he opens his first shop in Leeds in August. “No matter how tired I am after days of graft,” he says, “I get this buzz every time someone tells me they enjoy my food.”

Get the basics right, do your homework, do your sums, test your product or concept, build a brand – and make yourself the core of that – and you stand a chance. I came back from that sleepy holiday, hired my first employee, got myself an accountant, wrote a new business plan, left my day job and worked harder than ever. There are now five One Mile Bakeries, with more planned. I haven’t slept through a holiday since.

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